Tunisia update

Nov 06, 2011 Comments Off by

In a previous post, “A bad omen”, I critiqued the theological start the “liberated” Libya is getting and noted we’d no way of telling what consequences the Tunisian elections shortly thereafter would have. We now know that outcome. While an Islamist party secured over 40% of votes (whether their government will be a coalition as unsuccessful as the one currently in the UK only time will tell), a promise has been made the constitution will be entirely secular. It seems whoever is in charge of this new government wants an Arab state whose government is as secular in its intent as are its majority Muslim but nonetheless anti–theocratic people. Indeed, the very fact that I felt the need to include the word “but” in that sentence shows how deeply ingrained in our culture is the correlation between religion and opposition to secularism. Let’s discuss that for a moment.

You could argue the easiest way for Tunisia to draft the Constitution it wants would be to copy word for word the relevant secularism–establishing parts of the US Constitution, article VI and the first amendment’s establishment clause (whose extent is beyond Congress due to article VI’s supremacy clause, a point not emphasised enough). Someone else could counter that, for all the secularism in its Constitution, the United States is always finding new ways to make itself ever more Christian at the political level. The founding fathers were as religiously diverse as a collaborative group could be in the eighteenth century: they were a mix of Christian and deist, and some of them may not have even believed confidently in a god, and those who were Christian were of multiple denominations. The one idea about religion on which they were unified was that secularism was a good idea from a political standpoint, and that both politics and religion would benefit from it – but more importantly, so too would the individual. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument the new Tunisian leaders are as committed to these ideals as were the Founding Fathers themselves. Why expect their country to stay more tied to secularism than the US has?

In the US today, secularist law is almost entirely defended in the courts through the challenges of non–believers. In principle secularism should appeal to everyone; indeed, religious people do thank the Freedom From Religion Foundation for its efforts, and there are certainly modern secularist cases fought by theists: but these are few and far between. And, unfortunately, this unintentional monopolising of the cause by atheists becomes self–fulfilling, because many religious people come to equate secularism with atheism and therefore dislike it, and those religious people who might stand up for secularism feel less in touch with their religious communities if they go ahead – indeed, theists have become outcasts in their community for secularist efforts, and at least one example of this includes a previously well–respected priest. So as long as atheism remains unpopular in the US, secularism will be very hard to defend. Luckily, research suggests all it may take for atheism to gain tolerance is for the population to realise how many non–believers live in their midst, and how few detrimental effects this seems to be having for society, to put it mildly.

Perhaps then what will happen in Tunisia will depend on the biases of its people. Might there one day be a future where its secularist law is mainly defended by Christians, due to their being at that future time a very unpopular group? Hopefully not. How would this happen anyway? Well, let us think about what happened in the US. Their pledge and banknotes lacked references to God until the 1950s, when Americans felt their biggest dissimilarity to the Communists was the prevalence of theism in the US. (This shows how uninterested they were in understanding the philosophy, politics and economics of Communism and Marxism. If you’ve ever heard of the Russian Orthodox Church, you won’t imagine Russia that had an unusually low level of theism for a European nation when the October Revolution occurred, and it’s not as if personal beliefs made U–turns nationwide due to a regime change.) By contrast, when Robert Green Ingersoll & Mark Twain wore their irreligiosity on their sleeves, popular atheists existed and opposition to atheists was nowhere near its current levels. So what it would take for the example above to occur would be a prolonged war between Tunisia and a “Christian” state; Tunisia may be spared corruption of secularism by its starting in a later era.

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About the author

For most of my time as an undergraduate there was an atheist society in my university, which was founded late in my first year there. I was a committee member from then until my degree ended, by which time the society was atheist, secularist and humanist (you needn't be all three!). This gives me many experiences to relate. I have long critiqued pro-religious arguments, including in hundreds of posts - many of them thorough rebuttals to articles - on richarddawkins.net under my name. My degree was in physics, and I know a lot of the science - physics and otherwise - relevant to the debate on religion.
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